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The healing power of nature: Dunkeld’s award-winning Bush Kinder program

The healing power of nature: Dunkeld’s award-winning Bush Kinder program

By Bridie Walsh

Once a fortnight, Dunkeld kindergarten teacher, Debbi Millard, and the other kinder staff take 20 four-year-olds to a location in the nearby Grampian ranges for a “bush experience”. 

“Nature is known to create a sense of calm,” says Millard, who is also a member of The Grampians Advisory Board, and an advocate of the Bush Kinder program. 

The three-hour session looks like child’s play, but it offers so much more. Starting at the base of Mount Piccaninny in the Southern Grampians, just a kilometre from Griffins Hill yoga retreat, the children climb trees, engage in dramatic play, discover nature and go on bush walks. 

The idea behind Bush Kinder is to encourage safe risk-taking, and help children assess risk for themselves while being supervised. “In our society, we are so afraid of risks and children hurting themselves,” says Millard, adding that risk-taking teaches responsibility. 

“Children don’t learn by telling; they learn by experiencing and playing.”

The children can identify animals, learn about seed pods and bird calls, and take photos that will soon be used to create Dunkeld Kinder’s own little book of plants and animals.

How nature helps us feel better

The initiative is based on similar programs in Denmark and the United Kingdom. Last year, Millard and a colleague travelled overseas to learn more about the program and how adapt it to Australian conditions. They also studied a Bush Kinder program at Westgarth Primary in Melbourne.

Research suggests that immersion in natural environments is great for our sense of wellbeing. Concentration, healing and happiness improve, according to Harvard Health, and exercise levels increase and vitamin D levels go up. Adults benefit just as much as children. A University of Exeter report details lasting benefits of being in ‘green spaces’, including a reduced incidence of depression.

Guiding hands keep the kids safe

Risk assessment when heading out to the bush is critical. Millard says she has a long checklist to ensure the kids stay safe. That means backup plans in the case of an emergency, such as a lost child, snakebite or bushfire. The program is postponed on total fire ban days. The kindergarten has bought a bus to transport the kids.

The program makes sure the children don’t contribute to the spread of weed and pests. “The cinnamon fungus that affects the grass trees in the Grampians can be spread,” says Millard. “We developed a footbath. Every time we have Bush Kinder, we clean our shoes before we leave. This is a part of minimising risk to nature. Animals carry it too, but we do our little bit.” Such practices teach the children respect for our environment, she says. 

And the children now teach others – including their parents – about why you shouldn’t remove plants from the bush, and other important principles. The program is encouraging the children’s mums and dads to get back to nature too.

“A lot of Bush Kinder is about just being in nature and outdoors.” Millard says. “If people want to find out more, head to the tourist information centre in town first. Start by doing the walks.”

Parks Victoria gave Dunkeld Bush Kinder a sustainability award late last year for healthy innovation. The $2000 prize will go toward the  kindergarten bus.

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